June 7, 2020
Hear ye this word which I take up against you, even a lamentation, O house of Israel.
The virgin of Israel is fallen; she shall no more rise: she is forsaken upon her land; there is none to raise her up.
For thus saith the Lord God; The city that went out by a thousand shall leave an hundred, and that which went forth by an hundred shall leave ten, to the house of Israel.
For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live:
But seek not Bethel, nor enter into Gilgal, and pass not to Beersheba: for Gilgal shall surely go into captivity, and Bethel shall come to nought.
Seek the Lord, and ye shall live; lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it, and there be none to quench it in Bethel.
Ye who turn judgment to wormwood, and leave off righteousness in the earth,
Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The Lord is his name:
That strengtheneth the spoiled against the strong, so that the spoiled shall come against the fortress.
They hate him that rebuketh in the gate, and they abhor him that speaketh uprightly.
Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.
For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.
Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it is an evil time.
Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live: and so the Lord, the God of hosts, shall be with you, as ye have spoken.
Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.
Therefore the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord, saith thus; Wailing shall be in all streets; and they shall say in all the highways, Alas! alas! and they shall call the husbandman to mourning, and such as are skilful of lamentation to wailing.
And in all vineyards shall be wailing: for I will pass through thee, saith the Lord.
Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light.
As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.
Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies.
Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.
Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Have ye offered unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?
But ye have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves.
Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, saith the Lord, whose name is The God of hosts.
I have to confess, I had no idea where to start this week when I sat down to write a sermon. Everything in the country feels too heavy to hold. The news, my social media feeds, and conversations with friends have added up to a week of particular grief and anger that makes it difficult to engage with everyday life. We have come face to face, again, with blatant racism, state-sanctioned murder, unjust and broken systems that are supposed to uphold justice, and a leader who used our sacred text as a prop for a photo opportunity after gassing those who stood in his way. What on earth, what in heaven, and what hell are we living through?
I’m aware that this reality has not gotten worse in the past few months, it has gotten filmed. And the overwhelming evidence shows that some of those who are supposed to have our best interests at heart, are, in fact, harming and blaming those they have sworn to protect and defend. And so, in light of that and in light of the fact that we are a primarily white community, I want to offer a prayer before we move forward.
Lord, we come before you as a people who are hurting and who have hurt others; who are in need of the healing balm of your mercy and the searing fire of your judgement.
Forgive us when our action comes too late, our rage is directed at the wrong target, and our tears are more demonstrative than our presence on the front lines.
Forgive us when we center white feelings over black lives.
Forgive our apathy, our ignorance, our judgement, and the destruction that comes from our daily participation in white supremacy’s system that we are privileged enough to not HAVE to notice.
Forgive us when we use our words as weapons, or when we say the wrong thing, or when we say nothing because we don’t know what to say.
And as we lament and repent from all these things, let us not demand forgiveness from those we have hurt, or simply speak words of apology. But let us walk in the way of repentance, embodying our lament with action and solidarity.
And God, in your forgiveness, do not let us forget. Do not let us lapse into the negative peace of a simple lack of tension, but let us move forward with the vision of a positive peace that allows all of your created and loved people to know justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. Amen.
This week I spent a lot of time thinking about what we talk about when we talk about the Bible. The ways that we use this book to justify all manner of things. If you want scriptural back-up to be a vegetarian? In Genesis 1 God gives the command to eat only plants. Want justification to eat as much meat as possible? Just skip to Romans 14 and Paul will tell you that only those with “weak faith” eat vegetables. Feeling a little cramped during quarantine? Be like Jabez in 1 Chronicles and pray that God would increase your territory to include your neighbor’s in-ground pool. And, if you are sick of my voice, just throw 1 Corinthians at me, where it says women should be silent in the church!
We love to justify ourselves, don’t we? The same Bible that can be used to preach inclusion, equality, and justice was used this week as a political dog whistle to maintain and sustain the unbridled power of a privileged group. The Bible that taught me that my God-ordained role was to be silent and that my husband should beat me if I disobeyed, is the same Bible that I turn to for the wisdom and inspiration I’m using to preach this morning.
So, what do we do when our sacred text can be interpreted in so many different ways? Author Rob Bell says this: “The Bible is not an argument. It is a record of human experience. The point is not to prove that it’s the word of God or it’s inspired or it’s whatever the current word is that people are using. The point is to enter into its stories with such intention and vitality that you find what it is that inspired people to write these books.”
So, if we are looking for a through line in scripture, one that identifies the inspiration behind all these chapters and verses, looking at the prophets is a good place to start.
The prophets of the Old Testament are kind of like your most polarizing friend on Facebook. Completely unconcerned about what others think of them. Willing to say whatever they are thinking, whenever they think it. Unafraid of the fallout of their unpopular views, they (call their people to a better way). The prophets see the reality of their situation, call out what needs to change, and cast a vision for what could be. And, surprisingly in this climate of incredible differences in interpretation, the prophets are pretty unanimous in their message.
Our text today comes from the book of Amos, one of my favorite prophets. He is known as the “Prophet of Doom”, which is quite a nickname, and he earned it by foretelling the judgement of Israel and its surrounding territory. He speaks with the conviction and authority of someone who loves his people but knows that the way they are living isn’t God’s idea. He describes a ruined city, filled with wailing and mourning, where justice has turned to bitterness and righteousness is cast to the ground. The poor cry out against those who are in power, who hate justice and silence truth-tellers; who levy unfair taxes on the poor and take bribes for their oppression.
I double checked my facts, but Amos wasn’t actually written in 2020, believe it or not. This is the power of our sacred text- the verses we read this morning are as true today as they were when Amos was written.
The thing I think is so interesting about this text in Amos is the picture he paints of the characters in this great disaster. The poor, the oppressed, and the farmer. Those who build houses and cultivate fields are crying out, mourning the injustice they experience. Why would Amos center this lament around farmers?
During the past few months, I have been taking part in a seminary course online. This class is concerned with building missional community where we live and seeking out the assets of the places in which we find ourselves. One of my professors is Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, from right here in Baltimore, who is the pastor of Mt. Pleasant Baptist church and the leader of the Black Church Food Security Network. Dr. Brown is a pastor, an organizer, and a farmer, and I have learned so much from him. Like so many systems in the US, the food supply system is yet another area where racism and classism run rampant. Huge industrial food suppliers move into small towns, ravaging the environment with their waste products and putting small farms out of business. Food bank CEOs throughout the country make upwards of half a million-dollar salaries while the food banks themselves struggle to provide enough to feed hungry people. And black-owned farms are often overlooked by those who prefer the convenience and lower cost of sub-par food.
It’s a broken system, and Dr. Brown has heard the cry of the farmers in our community. Mt. Pleasant grows its own food, providing a regular farmer’s market right inside its building. They partner with black churches around the country to teach them how to use their land, what to grow, and how to bring nourishing food to places that are food deserts. Dr. Brown knows why the farmers lament and has a vision to bring justice and righteousness to kitchen tables across the country.
Amos’s vision ends with God making the kin-dom’s priorities clear. God is not interested in optics. Not interested in religiosity, or a shallow performance of faith. When sacrifices of grain are brought by those who did not grow it, God rejects them. Our attempts to justify bad behavior with small apologies fall on deaf ears. Our Facebook virtue signaling is worthless if it’s not followed up with action that works for justice. Our use of the very Word of God to build our own power on the steps of a church is utterly scorned.
Amos calls forth justice and righteousness as a river, a never-failing stream. As we consider our part in advocating for those who hunger to be fed, let us not forget his words. As we write to our elected officials, pack boxes to feed our friends in Woodburn-McCabe, identify those in our communities who have been affected the most by COVID, and feed our own families around our own tables, may we heed the cry of the farmer and listen to the wail of the oppressed. May we be people who are unafraid to speak truth to those in power, to check our interpretations of scripture when they only benefit us, and to seek out creative ways to bring justice and righteousness even to the food that we eat.